Ritual and Time
Underlying all of literature and the arts is the attempt to overcome human time. In general, artists create objects, paintings and books, re-creatable patterns of sound, that will endure beyond the human span. But, although these objects can speak across time, they cannot stop it. An individual’s attempt to overcome his natural limits is a refusal to accept the fact of time. Whether this refusal is noble or foolish, whether transcendence can be found in religion or solace in delusion, there is a universal urge to resist. Art is one of the tools of resistance.
Ritual is a social form of art, of finding the common patterns within a community. To the extent that a ritual symbolizes a truth or a history, it can be sustaining. But ritual, like a book, is not meant to preserve life but to embody and pass on shared values, knowledge, possibly even wisdom. To the extent a ritual is false to experience, it clouds our understanding of life. And a community that adheres to a ritual which has become progressively divergent from human reality and therefore progressively arbitrary, ends by undermining and distorting its own values.
In Peter Taylor’s short story “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time,” the characters confront a twofold loss: the loss of social ritual and the loss of youth. Like a fugue, these themes are woven together and sound against each other throughout the story.
The central ritual is an annual party for adolescents hosted by the Dorsets, an elderly brother and sister who’ve lived together their whole long lives in the town of Chatham. They have been disinherited and live almost hand to mouth, in an increasingly decrepit house, relying on their sense of a privileged lineage to buoy their dignity. According to the genteel pretensions of the town, they are almost unacceptably eccentric, often disheveled, sometimes appearing in pajamas. That Mr. Dorset washes his own car is even more shocking than the tight, “flesh” colored overalls he wears while doing it. “Some neighbors got so they would not even admit to themselves what they saw. And a child coming home with an ugly report on the Dorsets was apt to be told that it was time he learned to curb his imagination.”
The history and nature of their strange annual parties is common knowledge. Everyone over the age of fourteen, including the narrator, has been to one. And most are aware of the dark backdrop to this ritual: incest. It is implicit in the Dorsets’ living arrangements, incipient in the children and unavoidably conjured during the party.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” also depicts an annual ritual but one which is superficially far harsher. The citizens of a small rural town draw lots to determine which one of them will be stoned to death. Jackson’s story is largely the mechanics of the lottery process. More is made of the construction of the lottery box, say, than any of the characters. All we know of the community is that it is in coal country, and this only through a brief reference to the “coal office” where the lots have been marked. The reason for the lottery is almost completely unknown, forgotten. A fragmentary, uncertain allusion to some sort of primitive harvest ritual is so drastically dissonant with the historical period of the story that it has no force either for the characters or the reader. Jackson’s prose is stripped down in the same way that the ritual has been stripped of meaning and simply stands on its own, a bare armature. The story is a damning view of unquestioning conformity. But nothing more except, perhaps, a demonstration of the fear of abandoning a traditional form—even if the form means nothing.
Taylor wants to get beyond condemnation and caricature. “Venus” is an elaborately adorned, highly detailed and multi-faceted view of a community coming-of-age party. It is not cast in the hard, simple light of “The Lottery.” “Venus” is much closer to Faulkner’s story of ritual: “A Rose for Emily.” While they differ stylistically—Faulkner more gothic and melodramatic; Taylor more modern and lyrical—both find a perverse connection between ritual and time.
Both begin similarly, in communal first person—“we”—voices speaking for their towns out of common attitudes and values. Both towns are tolerant of the eccentrics in their midst and treat them with a guarded protocol. Both narrators consider themselves the voices of civilization and promote their rituals in an attempt to preserve them.
Faulkner’s community is in the just-post-Civil War South, traditions lingering but slowly disappearing. Their rituals, cast as manners in this instance, almost compel Emily to commit her hideous crime. But even more, the reluctance to pry, the deference given to ladies, the clichés of romance and the jilted heart, allow her to keep her secret years upon years—across time. It is the very passage of time, and the denial of that passage, that transforms her act from murder into madness and decay, ending in the most perverse version of marriage imaginable.
Taylor’s “Venus” is set in another time: the Upper South of the Depression. The courtly style that had insulated Emily from reality is long gone. Chatham is mercantile and quickly becoming the transient America we know today. The Dorsets play the same role as Emily—eccentrics whom the narrator, speaking for the town, talks of with wry tolerance. There is some self-congratulation in this and, of course, endless gossip.
Sensible parents wished to keep their children away. Yet what could they do? For a Chatham girl to have to explain why she never went to a party at the Dorsets’ was like having to explain why she had never been a debutante…In a busy modern city like Chatham you cannot afford to let people forget who you are—not for a moment, not at any age.
But unlike “Emily,” in “Venus” the children are the victims. To maintain social status, the adults tolerate their unchaperoned attendance at the Dorsets’ ritual. Since the adults have foreknowledge and experience of the party, they are guilty of more than just ignorance. Their averting of eyes is not simply passive but actively contributes to the increasingly perverse nature of the party. At minimum, regardless of any flaws of character, the Dorsets have aged. The discrepancy between their physical deterioration and the youth they are trying to impersonate becomes, year by year, more grotesquely apparent. By ignoring the passage of time and shrugging off reality, the parents are complicit in corrupting the ritual.
The children are unprepared for the consequences of what should have been an innocent trick had the party been held under less distorted conditions. Relying on the Dorsets’ failing eyesight and awareness, the children set out to deceive and socially embarrass the old couple. They concoct a plan to have an uninvited, socially “lower” boy impersonate the brother of a girl, both of whom are invited guests. The plan works, the false brother is allowed in and the real brother sneaks in, too.
But the deception backfires and instead reveals to the children their own dark inner impulses. Instead of the light mockery they intend, they find guilt and desire in themselves. When the false brother begins to flirt with his “sister,” the real brother becomes suddenly and unexpectedly jealous, as if he were vying for his sister, suggesting the Dorsets’ own strange relationship. The party turns into a parody of the dreams it is meant to celebrate. And ultimately, when the deception falls apart, the Dorsets’ reactions of confusion and humiliation reveal a truth everyone must encounter—the inexorable ravages of time. But here, for the children, it is revealed prematurely and perversely.
To allow us to begin to interpret and experience the story’s many implications, Taylor employs an often inconsistent point of view. Faulkner’s story adheres to a single, unifying point of view: first person plural. But in “Venus” the first person plural progressively becomes first person singular and the narrator reveals himself as an individual, a well-integrated citizen of the town. At times he uses an omniscient third person, speculatively penetrating the emotions and sensations of others. At times he is in a room he can’t have been in, listening to conversations he cannot have heard. Later, he will explain, weakly, that he was told of these things later, after the events of the party. For some readers, this apparently loose treatment of point of view will bring its authority into question.1
But for others it is an advantage. Hearing the story from several perspectives, even if some of them are clearly suspect or imaginative recreations of the narrator, allows a more comprehensive and complicated sense of the romantic, the foolish, the poetic and, of course, the perverse.
Nothing about the one evening when you were actually there ever seemed quite so real as the glimpses and snatches which you got from those people before and after you—the secondhand impressions of the Dorsets’ behavior, of the things they said, of looks that passed between them.
“Nothing ...quite so real as... the before and after...the secondhand impressions.” The imagination that the adults have tried to “curb” in their children cannot be overcome. It is a primal element of human life, a source of our finest achievements but, in any case, inescapable, even when it runs to dark places.
If the literal account of the party is recreated in part by the narrator’s memory of his own attendance years before, the colors of those memories are essential to moving beyond a story as restricted as “The Lottery.” We can wander among the paper flowers with their misleading profusion of life as a dream. We can assess the disarray of the Dorsets’ attire and makeup, even their “small, amber-colored eyes”—the very image of fossilization. We can be in on the planning of the hoax and bring our own interpretation to the flushed cheeks and careful eyes of the children. We can be jealous and confused along with the young brother watching his sister flirt with the boy pretending to be him.
The narrator of “Venus” provides knowledge, imaginative range and empathy so that we can attend that one night as well as all the others before it. We cannot simply mock it or condescend to it as some oddball moment—an elderly couple transforming their house into a cheap bower of romance and memory—a moment that has nothing to do with us. What we are really shown is that even at its cheapest (exemplified by the central tattered paper reproduction of “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time”), our need for romance overwhelms everything, including reality. In the story, as in life, this need disregards the falsity of its setting, genteel rituals, even perverseness. Indeed, the mix of memory and imagination is what gives romance its power. It feels to be out of time. But the tragedy is that it is not.
As the story moves past the party, the narrator begins to shy away from the pagan colors, mysterious shadows and yearning touches. He pulls back into a fairly clinical historical account of Chatham and the destinies of its people. He becomes plainer, less imagistic, the power of the story apparently beginning to wane for him. The implication, though, is that the Dorsets’ party has more dark suggestions than he’s capable of analyzing or coming to terms with. The undercurrent of incest cannot be ignored, even by the children. And the poor, ineffectual Dorsets are shown their own delusion. They’re not prominent social arbiters; they’re just foolish. But most hideously, they see they haven’t stopped time at all, as they expected.
“Tonight you must be gay and carefree,” Mr. Dorset enjoins the [children].
“Because in this house we are all friends,” Miss Dorset says. “We are all young, we all love one another!”
“And love can make us all young forever,” her brother says…. “Remember this evening always, sweet young people!”
“Remember!”... Miss Dorset…whispers hoarsely: “This is what it is like to be young forever!”
After the party, the Dorsets’ romance and youth are gone forever. And that was everything they had. Even many years later, the narrator tries to avert his eyes. But what he really doesn’t care to see is the abyss of time that the party has opened for all of them. A quote from “A Rose for Emily” could stand as well for “Venus” and even “The Lottery”: “With nothing left, [Emily] [and the Dorsets] would have to cling to that which had robbed them, as people will.” Clinging to memory, turning away from time are what have robbed not only the Dorsets but all the people of Chatham—a town which of course does not exist in time.
At the end of “Venus,” the only person curious about the party is a woman who is not from Chatham but who has married, some years later, the jealous young brother. The brother has moved away, lost contact—almost as if he’s committed a crime. Perhaps, in his heart, he has. His wife appeals to the narrator for some key to her husband’s vaguely shadowed inner life. But if the narrator has any key, he is unwilling to say it. More likely, he remains as mystified as everyone else.
Human life can only be analyzed and judged up to a point. “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” is nothing so simple as a morality tale or a study in psychology. It takes us beyond moral objections and specific perversions which are, in any case, indifferent to social need; it takes us beyond nostalgia and youth and the end of youth. Fearing change, the citizens of Chatham allow the ritual to drift further and further from reality. Had they, instead, abandoned it when it no longer made sense, perhaps they might have spared their children having their first glimpse of the effects of time and human folly be such a disfigured one.
We are all, as the narrator is, reluctant to face time. We hold ritual up as a shield. But it can only be temporary for each of us. Our one consolation is that, if the story begins in false ritual, it ends in that oldest and truest of rituals—a work of art.
1 Even the tense of “Venus” shifts from past to present at one point -- to me the effect is to convey the vividness of some memories or, as Proust might say, the ever-present past. Some of the lore surrounding Randall Jarrell’s dislike of the story apparently stems from what he saw were technical errors.